01 August 2008
Riding the High Country With McCrea, Scott and Mariette Hartley (sigh!)
In June the AFI released its ten best films in ten various genres. The omissions were as numerous and obvious as fleas on white cat. One that particularly stuck in my craw was their top ten Westerns. Yesterday I enjoyed Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962) and was reminded that this classic did not make the AFI's list.
If you've never seen it, don't hesitate to rent it or catch it next time it's on TCM. Thank me later. If you have seen it you likely agree it belongs in any discussion of great Westerns. It has all the best elements of a good Western. Scenery, action, moral dilemmas, awful villains and complicated heroes. Ride the High Country boasts two great aging actors playing two aging relics of the old west, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. Mariette Hartley made her film debut as "the girl." Hartley would gain her greatest fame for the Polaroid commercials she did opposite James Garner. But she certainly deserved acclaim for her performance here. Not incidentally, the then 22 year old Hartley was absolutely gorgeous.
The requisite bad guys were as bad as they come with John Anderson, Warren Oates and L.Q Jones leading the way. Oates and Jones would appear numerous times for Peckinpah. A newcomer named Ron Starr was Heck Longtree the young buck with a lot to learn from McCrea and Scott, who fell for Hartley's Elsa Knudsen. Surprisingly Starr had a very brief career. He was far and away the second most famous R. Starr of the early 1960's.
McCrea played Steve Judd an old lawman hired by a bank for the seemingly impossible task of delivering gold from a mining camp through country riddled with outlaws. He hires an old compadre, Gill Westrum (Scott) and his young protege Longtree to help him. Westrum and Longtree have other ideas for the gold. Along the way they come across Ms. Knudsen and her Holy Roller father. Elsie desperately wants to escape her father's farm and his repressive ways, especially since she has a beau at the mining camp. Off go the four with their different goals. Once they arrive at the camp, further complications ensue.
This was only Peckinpah's second feature film. The film's violence lacks the spurts of blood that would be a trademark but it is harsh and real nonetheless The villains are appropriately menacing and just as ugly mean as rattlers.
Ride the High Country works on a number of levels. Perhaps most of all as a morality tale. But it is also about the ending of an era. When McCrea rides into town at the beginning for the film people are lining the streets in great excitement, he doffs his camp in appreciation. However a cop shoos him away, the people are there to watch a race between a camel and two horses. There are also those new fangled horseless carriages about. It's a great beginning to a great film.
Also look for a fine performances by Edgar Buchannan (uncle Joe on Petticoat junction) as a drunken justice of the peace, Byron Foulger as the bank president and Jenie Jackson whose performance as a madam cannot be topped.
Oh and here's a baker's dozen of the best Westerns I've ever seen.
The Wild Bunch (1969) Peckinpah
The Searchers (1958) Ford
Stagecoach (1939) Ford
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Hill
Dances With Wolves (1990) Costner
The Big Trail (1930) Walsh
Westward the Women (1951) Wellman
Ride the High Country (1962) Peckinpah
My Darling Clementine (1946) Ford
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Ford
Little Big Man (1970) Penn
The Naked Spur (1953) Mann
The Westerner (1940) Wyler